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2007 Romer-Simpson Medal Recipient

Wann Langston, Jr.

Wann Langston, Jr.

I was born on July 10, 1921 in Oklahoma City. Four years later, I was bitten by the Dinosaur Bug in the form of a replica of Andrew Carnegie's Diplodocus in the natural history museum in Vienna, Austria, and from that moment my over-riding interest in fossils has never waned.

Until my junior high school days I was pretty much on my own when it came to paleontology—I never heard the word until I was around 10 years old. Dinosaurs and such were not the hot topics in those days that they are today, and there were virtually no "popular" books on the subject on the market. As a child I dug up anything resembling a bone. I recall my mother driving me to a local dump near the Oklahoma City zoo and leaving me and a long suffering friend to "excavate," all the time fantasizing about Tyrannosaurus rex and trachodon, as it was called at the time. I never learned how these bones got there as Taphonomy had not been invented yet. In the late 1920s my parents took me to New York for two weeks. Every morning to get me out of the way, I believe, I was delivered to the American Museum with a cigar box full of modeling clay. I spent each day copying, in miniature, dinosaur skeletons on exhibit in Dinosaur Hall. I learned a great deal about dinosaurian anatomy in this exercise. In the evening I was gathered up at the Museum door and returned to reality. I usually received a dollar and a condescending pat on the head for my day's efforts. Then those sculptures were destroyed and the clay made ready for the next day's work. Even today I find solace in a wad of modeling clay and an old bone to be replicated.

In 1930, I had the good fortune to be introduced to a new professor of Geology at the University of Oklahoma, just a short drive from Oklahoma City. Dr. J. Willis StovalI was a friendly man and an inspiring teacher. He took me under his wing and was my mentor from then until I graduated from the University in 1943. During my years with Dr. Stovall I was allowed to "assist" his graduate students in the preparation lab and I learned the art of fossil preparation from such people as Llewellyn I. Price, C. Stewart Johnston, and William S. Strain.  Some of those specimens formed the nucleus of the spectacular displays that many of us saw at the SVP meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, in 2002.

In 1938, I was the junior member of a "gang of three" (Noel McAnulty, Donald E. Savage, four years my senior, and me). The gang spent a couple of months searching for and collecting the first dinosaurs from the Upper Cretaceous rocks of the Big Bend region of Texas. It was here that I discovered my first dinosaur, a fragmentary Chasmosaurus, which in my youthful exuberance I promptly identified as Triceratops—it did have long straight horns. From there the gang moved into the Eocene beds in neighboring Presidio County. Here, just like the pioneer collectors, we prospected from horseback (I rode a burro) and brought back the first serious collections in what later became a well-known field worked by Stovall and Savage, Brian Patterson and Jim Quinn of the Field Museum, and is still yielding excellent material to Jon Kalb, an associate of the Texas Memorial. Then followed  field trips with Stovall and Savage to New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. This is when I discovered that dropping mammalian fossils into shrinkage cracks speeded our arrival at more interesting dinosaur sites elsewhere.

Following my return from service in WW II, I earned my MS degree from Oklahoma, describing Acrocanthasaurus, from the Lower Cretaceous beds of southeastern Oklahoma.  In 1946-48 I was employed at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where in alternating semesters, for an annual salary of $1,800, I taught three sections of physical and historical geology (including labs), and was permitted to work with mainly Triassic fossils in the Tech museum in my spare time. The museum was a basement with a ground-level tar paper roof. There I published my first paper, an account of a phytosaur skull from Scurry County, Texas. The most enduring consequence of this period in my life was my marriage to Marietta Evans whom I met at OU where I found her teaching freshman geology labs.

I entered the PhD program in the Paleontology Department at Berkeley under Professor Charles Lewis Camp in 1948.  My dissertation was a study of a large collection of fish, amphibians and reptiles from the Lower Permian of New Mexico. The specimens had been collected in 1934-1935 by Camp, S. P. Welles, and Vertress VanderHoof and associates near Arroyo del Agua in Rio Arriba County. At Berkeley I became re-associated with Don Savage who was completing his PhD. He and I enjoyed dabbling with exhibits and I completed the first iteration of Welles' Dilophosaurus wetherilli, which we installed in the great hall of Hearst Mining Building while R. A. Stirton, the chairman of the department, was in the field in Colombia. This was something of a coup as the Museum of Paleontology frowned on public displays at that time. Faced with a fait accompli upon his return, Stirt grudgingly acknowledged that the massive slab mount "was somewhat attractive."

After receiving my degree from the University of California in 1952, I remained there for two more years waiting for a job to materialize, in what passed for a post-doc in those days. During that time I published the amphibian section of my dissertation and began work on a monograph of the La Venta crocodilians from Colombia, collected by Stirton, Savage and Robert W. Fields.

Langston in his lab

My pursuit of gainful employment was rewarded in 1954 by an invitation from Dr. Loris S. Russell to come to Ottawa, Canada, to fill the place recently vacated by retiring Charles M. Sternberg, as curator of fossil vertebrates at the National Museum of Canada (now Canadian Museum of Nature). Marietta and our baby daughter arrived in Ottawa from sunny California just as the first snows were beginning to fall. Moreover, the facilities occupied by vertebrate paleontology were less than inviting (the ceiling of the prep lab fell in just before my arrival and was not repaired for at least a year, and the windows in my office apparently hadn’t been opened—or washed--—since the Revolutionary War).  But, the collection of dinosaurs seemed Heaven-sent for me.

I spent the following eight summers collecting in the western Canadian provinces, with a couple of short stints in the Permian of Prince Edward Island. In fact, I believe I can claim that with the exception of one pelycosaur jaw described by Joseph Leidy and a few shark teeth collected by E. C. Case, I collected all the fossil vertebrates found up to that time on the island province. The entire collection could be held in the palms of two hands! Collecting out west included a tailless Edmontosaurus now on display at the Natural History Museum in London, a Pachyrhinosaurus/hadrosaur bonebed from an awfully named place, Scabby Butte, and a new chasmosaur, which had simply sunk down on all fours and expired, preserving all four limbs in natural articulation. Except for the scattered skull my field crew and I recovered the specimen in a single block, reminiscent of the Sternbergs' practices, so as not to disturb the natural relationships of the bones. On another occasion we collected an intact Triceratops skeleton, complete except for all four legs. Taphonomy, anyone?  At Ottawa I completed the crocodilian monograph begun at Berkeley, published a Fieldiana monograph on a new hadrosaur from Alabama (Lophorothon atopus) and published results of my PEI exploration. I also completed three papers on Pachyrhinosaurus.

In spite of Canada's many attractions, the family, now augmented by a young Canadian-born daughter, left Ottawa for warmer climes in Texas in 1962.   John A. (Jack) Wilson and William Newcomb (Texas Memorial Museum) combined their good offices to create a job for me at the Museum, for which I am everlastingly grateful. At The University of Texas I have been fortunate to hold positions as curator at the Texas Memorial Museum and faculty positions in the Department of Geological Sciences (now Jackson School of Geosciences). I served as Director of the Vertebrate Paleontology Lab from 1969 to 1986, succeeding Jack Wilson, the Lab's founder. Among my most gratifying experiences at Texas have been the associations with an outstanding faculty and the procession of inspired and inspiring graduate students with whom I have worked and learned. My research since coming to Texas has focused largely on my first love, the Big Bend, with its magnificent array of Cretaceous and Tertiary faunas. While here, in addition to the usual responsibilities of academic faculty, I have found time with many able associates to restore and mount the skeleton of Diplodocus hayi at the Houston Museum of Sciences, a mosasaur from Austin, later remounted by my former student Kyle Davies, a second mosasaur and a Tenontosaurus at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. My research has involved mostly pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and crocodilians, and this work continues.  Sadly, however, field work for me has essentially ended owing to creeping decrepitude.

This account would not be complete without some recollections about my association with the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. This association began during WW II. I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego when I earned a 48-hour pass at Captain's Inspection (by looking like what the Captain believed a sailor in the U S Navy should look like—never mind that almost none of us ever did). I took a bus to Pasadena and Cal Tech where I accidentally bumped into Chester Stock. After about an hour Stock asked me if I would like to join SVP (which I had never heard of). I thought belonging to a bonafied scientific organization might be an interesting diversion from swabbing decks so when Professor Stock offered to pay my $1.00 annual dues while I was in service I jumped at the opportunity and became a member in January 1944. Joining SVP was one of the better life decisions I have made. Membership has brought me in touch with a lot of interesting people doing interesting things while traveling to interesting places. I am grateful for their comradeship and tolerance—you know who I mean!

I had the privilege of being your president in 1975 and editor of the News Bulletin from 1977 to 1979. I was elected an Honorary Life Member in 1988 and received the Joseph T. Gregory award in 1994.

I believe my most lasting contribution to SVP was obtaining the 501(c) (3) classification from the Internal Revenue Service granting non-taxable status to the Society, and paving the way for the Society to raise funds for its several endowments. In the early 1970s I chaired a committee formed at the suggestion of the National Science Foundation to survey and analyze the state of vertebrate fossil collections in the United States. The results, published in 1972, though admittedly incomplete, gave a clearer idea of who had what and how many fossils, and ranked collections around the country. Although now long out of date, I believe it is still consulted occasionally.  Following up on this report, and again at the instigation of NSF, was a second committee which produced a report entitled, "Fossil Vertebrates in the United States—The Next Ten Years.” It must be said that the committees clairvoyance has been largely blind sided by history, but like the rest of my career it was at least an interesting experience.  

Photos courtesy of Wann Langston, Jr.